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The Point Bonita Lighthouse

Point Bonita Lighthouse Is Near The SS City of Rio de Janeiro

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The Point Bonita Lighthouse in Marin County is included within the popular Golden Gate National Recreation Area, nearby to the City of Sausalito. This San Francisco Bay lighthouse was originally built further inland; however, it was quickly determined that the sailing vessels entering the foggy San Francisco Bay could not see the first beacons. In 1877, the Point Bonita Lighthouse was moved to its present location, perched on the Bay.

Lighthouse History: The SS City of Rio de Janeiro

In 1877, before the Point Bonita Lighthouse could be relocated to sit on a jetty of rocks, closer to the troublesome spots in the water, a crew of workers was hired to hand-dig tunnels through solid stone to provide an easy access path to the lighthouse. Next, a short suspension bridge was needed for human access to the lighthouse tower. In 1940, a fine bridge was built for tower access; however, in year 2011, the old bridge was condemned.

During the famous California Gold Rush days, over 300 sailing vessels sank nearby and inside of the San Francisco Bay. The Bay underwater landscape, near the point where the Golden Gate Bridge stands today, offered sea-vessels a challenging obstacle course to navigate during foggy and non-foggy conditions. The Point Bonita Lighthouse was in place to provide notice of underwater obstacles, while watching for shipwreck survivors.

The old Fort Point lifesaving station was not far away from Point Bonita Lighthouse. In the Marin Headlands area, the lifesaving stations were designed to help the shipwreck survivors to reach safety on shore, and to provide medical aide if necessary, after people were pulled from the water. On February 22, 1901, the SS City of Rio de Janeiro struck rocks near the lighthouse; nobody knew a large ship was in trouble nearby, due to fog.

The SS City of Rio de Janeiro was sailing a route that included Hong Kong, Japan and Hawaii, with its home port in San Francisco. On the night that the City of Rio de Janeiro sank, about 300 people were on board with a cargo of tin worth an estimated $900,000 by year 2012 standards. The fog near the lighthouse was so thick that it took almost two hours for the shipwreck survivors to be noticed in the waves; only 82 survivors were left.

Today, the shipwrecked SS City of Rio de Janeiro is thought to be a few hundred feet to the front of the Point Bonita Lighthouse. Conditions near the lighthouse prevent all but the most experienced divers from attempting underwater searches in this area. Modern sonar scans cannot determine the names of the ships that have come to rest on the floor of the sea, near the mouth of the San Francisco Bay. Over 300 ships sank before year 1900.

Over the years, visitors to the Point Bonita Lighthouse were often impressed with the old suspension bridge that swayed in the gusty wind. Huge waves crashed on the rocks below the access bridge, sending sprays of water upwards to soak unsuspecting visitors. While standing at the edge of this access bridge location, it is easy to understand the force of sea waves on treacherous rocks and how lucky the shipwreck survivors were to reach land.

Point Bonita Lighthouse, Today:

The Point Bonita Lighthouse trail is open on Saturday and Sunday from 12:30 until 3:30 each day. Visitors can take this half-mile scenic hike outwards towards the old lighthouse structure; however, until spring of 2012, the beautiful old lighthouse is out-of-reach while the newest suspension bridge is under construction. Along the pathway, visitors will be able to pass through the short hand-dug tunnel in the rocks that was created near 1877.

Point Bonita Lighthouse was the third manned lighthouse on the West Coast of America. This lighthouse is still in operation today to help with safe passages for ships entering or leaving the San Francisco Bay. After the new suspension bridge is completed, the people who hike the lighthouse trail can access the old lighthouse building during the scheduled visiting hours. Early afternoon hours are often scheduled to coincide with fogless hours.

From the lighthouse location, visitors have spectacular views of the Bay. Professional seascape photographers, cell phone camera users and sketch artists are often attracted to points along the lighthouse access trail and the views from the lighthouse site. The access trail is very steep in places and the wind is constantly blowing. It is always wise to wear good hiking shoes, hats with tie-downs and an appropriate-weight jacket for the weather.

Scheduled hours and lighthouse access times are subject to change without notice due to state and federal funding dilemmas. For up-to-date information about trail access times and lighthouse visitation schedules, contact the National Park Service. The NPS is also the entity to contact, during normal working hours, to secure filming permits or/and the special event passes that are needed for lighthouse activities that go beyond daily routine.

Attn: Point Bonita Lighthouse Division
Golden Gate National Parks
Building 201, Fort Mason
San Francisco, California 94123-0022

Local Phone:
National Park Service Information Center
(415) 561-4700

Permits & Special Events:
National Park Service Permit Department
(415) 561-4300

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Photos copyright by Jay Graham Photographer
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